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NHS: Future UK Trade Deals - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:20 pm on 4th July 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Courtown The Earl of Courtown Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) 1:20 pm, 4th July 2019

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, for bringing this topic to the House for debate and for the insightful contributions by Peers from all parts of the House.

We are extremely fortunate to have heard many well-articulated and expert contributions today from noble Lords who have considerable interest in and experience of not only trade issues but the UK’s public services, including the NHS. In particular, I thank my noble friend Lord Lansley for his contribution, particularly over the last two years, during which he has had treatment from the NHS. We are all very pleased that he is here to make that speech. My noble friend also set out the history of the NHS over the past 15 years, which showed how all Governments over that period have contributed to the NHS as it is today.

A number of issues have been raised which once again showed the central role that the NHS plays at the heart of our communities and the strength of feeling we have for this great institution. The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, elucidated the importance of the NHS and mentioned several different areas; I will answer some of the points she raised later. On the social care issue, she drew attention to the report of my noble friend Lord Forsyth, which of course the Government will respond to in due course.

I point out that the Government have been consistently clear about their commitment to the guiding principles of the NHS, and I confirm to all noble Lords that it is universal and free at the point of need. Our position is definitive: the NHS is not, and never will be, for sale to the private sector, whether overseas or domestic. The Government will ensure that no trade agreements will ever be able to alter these fundamental facts. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister noted in January, the NHS,

“is one of this country’s greatest institutions. An institution that is consistently what makes the people of this country most proud to be British”.

That is why protecting the UK’s right to regulate in the public interest and to protect public services, including the NHS, is of the utmost importance. The Government will continue to ensure that decisions on how to run public services are made by UK Governments, including the devolved Administrations, and not by our trade partners.

Free trade agreements were mentioned by a number of noble Lords—in fact, all of them. No trade agreement has ever affected our ability to keep public services public, and trade agreements do not force us to open up the NHS to private providers. I can therefore reassure noble Lords on this point. We have always protected our right to choose how we deliver public services in trade agreements, and we will continue to do so. That is not simply the UK’s position but a principle which goes to the heart of trade in services under World Trade Organization rules. For example, the General Agreement on the Trade in Services specifically exempts services which are,

“supplied in the exercise of governmental authority”.

On top of this, the delivery of public services is safeguarded in the trade in services aspects of all free trade agreements the UK is party to. In the EU’s free trade agreements, the UK’s public services are protected by specific exceptions and reservations. As we leave the EU, the UK will continue to ensure that public services—including the NHS—are protected in all trade agreements it is party to, whether transitioned from an EU context or as a result of new negotiations.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, my noble friend Lord Lansley and other noble Lords drew attention to the EU public procurement directive. As noble Lords will be aware, the directive was transposed into UK law many years ago now. It applies to the NHS where it carries out relevant public procurement. Her Majesty’s Government are committed to ensuring that the NHS can operate within a fair and rational framework for procurement as well as commissioning services. This will remain the case under all EU exit scenarios. If I can add anything more on that issue for the noble Baroness, I will write to her.